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Culture

New York’s Gathering of Remembrance goes online for Yom HaShoah

New York’s Annual Gathering of Remembrance, which commemorates Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, typically draws over 20,000 people to Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El. This year the venue is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but attendance is expected to grow substantially by taking the ceremony online.

“I think this year we’ll see a broader audience than we’ve seen before,” said Jack Kliger, president and CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, which for the last two decades has hosted the event on the Sunday before Yom HaShoah. “We didn’t let the continuity of the gathering be broken by the pandemic.”

The museum and its partner organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the New York Board of Rabbis, were well into the process of coordinating speakers and performers when they realized the scale of the COVID-19 crisis might demand a backup plan. In around 30 days, the marketing and communications team put together a one-hour video with remarks by Senator Chuck Schumer; Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York; and reflections from Holocaust survivors and a third-generation survivor. The multi-segment video will was broadcast on the museum’s website, YouTube and Facebook page on April 19 at 2:00 PM EST (you can view an encore presentation above). The ceremony will be shared with regional Holocaust museums across the country and rebroadcasted to their communities.

“We got quite a few of our people to speak, but the main thing was reaching out to candle-lighters,” said Kliger. The lighting of memorial candles is a central part of Yom HaShoah observance, and families of survivors were contacted and submitted video of their candle-lightings for the ceremony. With the event going online-only, those watching at home are invited to record their own ritual lighting using the hashtag #CandlesOfRemembrance.

“People can become connected that way,” Kliger said. “In some ways it is a new level of connection and gives everyone a chance to be a part of it and to have their own commemoration.” Notable candle-lighters in the video include Steven Skybell (Tevye in the Folksbiene’s Yiddish “Fiddler on the Roof”) and survivor and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

To supplement the traditional musical portion of the gathering — which features choirs and cantorial music — the online ceremony features a documentary video about the recently-discovered composition “Won’t Be Silent” by Wolf Durmashkin, which was written while Durmashkin was a prisoner at the Klooga concentration camp, where he was executed in September 1944. In the film, made by Durmashkin’s niece and nephew, the song of resistance is shown being performed by the Bavarian Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.

In the current crisis, the meaning of this commemoration has changed for Kliger.

“The theme of isolation and separation was so important to what happened to people in the Holocaust,” he said. “Obviously this is different, but I had one young man tell me how he re-read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ with a different perspective of what it’s like to be confined and separated.”

The altered nature of the program reflects the potential of our own time of uncertainty and fear.

“We fortunately have abilities to communicate and connect here that we didn’t have before,” Kliger said. “I think going forward in future years we will definitely add more of a live-stream webcast or some sort of telecast of this event — even when we do gather together.”

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at grisar@forward.com

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